The junta that rules Myanmar is not known for its love of art. The generals do occasionally pay for the restoration of an historic temple or the painting of an edifying mural. But inevitably, the resulting work aims more to nourish their self-esteem than to reflect the life or concerns of ordinary Burmese.
The paintings of Htein Lin, a former Burmese dissident who has given up politics for art, serve as something of an antidote to the regime's propaganda. They are not, as some democracy activists might have hoped, a crusading attack on military rule. To the extent that they carry any ideological message, it is a simple insistence on freedom of expression. Above all, the collection of works on display at London's Asia House until October 13th is a record of the misery of life in the junta's prisons.
The life story of Mr Htein Lin (who can be seen above sitting in front of one of his paintings) mirrors the recent history of Burma, as Myanmar was known before the army changed its name. In 1988, while still at university and dabbling in painting, he helped to organise the political protests that brought down the dictatorial regime of the day. When the generals subsequently reasserted themselves, he fled to the jungle, along with many other idealistic students.
But disillusionment set in. The army overran the rebels' camps, neighbouring governments refused them refuge and the pressures of fear, hunger and disease bred discord. Some of Mr Htein Lin's comrades were executed by other rebels on suspicion of spying for the junta; Mr Htein Lin himself was tortured. He escaped and, renouncing politics, returned to university.
Politics, however, soon caught up with him again: the secret police intercepted a letter that, unbeknownst to Mr Htein Lin, mentioned his name as a possible recruit to the opposition's cause. A military tribunal slung him in prison. Six years later, as a result of a power struggle within the junta, he was released.
Throughout all this upheaval, Mr Htein Lin tried to keep painting. In the jungle, he was reduced to sketching in the sand with sticks. But the hardest place to pursue his calling was prison. Brushes, paints and paper were not allowed. At first, he used his fingers to spread dye from the prison factory over empty food packets. Gradually, however, he discovered that the lungyis (sarongs) of the prisoners' uniforms made the best canvases, while almost anything, from the lids of toothpaste tubes to the wheels of cigarette lighters could be used as brushes. Sometimes, he carved stencils out of bars of soap; at others, as in the self-portrait on display in the show, he applied his improvised paints with a syringe.
His fellow prisoners kept an eye out for guards while he painted. In exchange, he put on “exhibitions” for them in his cell block, or painted scenes they requested. He hid his work in his bedroll and bribed friendly guards to smuggle it out. Once, a guard mistook a series of abstract paintings as blueprints for an escape attempt and destroyed them.
Many of the paintings show snapshots of prison life: convicts crouched in subservient squats for inspections, or curled morosely in tiny cells. One, made for a friend who pined for a pretty view, depicts a sunset. Another, painted at the turn of the millennium, presents an imaginary firework display.
Mr Htein Lin says that the constant struggle to obtain supplies and hide his work kept him busy and distracted. Moreover, in the face of these and other obstacles, simply continuing to paint seemed like an act of defiance. It is good that this small but dignified protest succeeded. And it is even better that the paintings have now been drawn to the attention of a much wider audience, thanks in part to the artist's recent marriage to a British diplomat. But perhaps it is also a little depressing to see how the daily struggle to lay his hands on this and that has subsumed Mr Htein Lin's grander ambitions—as it has for so many other Burmese.
August 5, 2007
I first heard about Burmese artist Htien Lin on BBC World a few nights ago; then I came across his story in this week's The Economist. His story is quite amazing and he has a very interesting, very unique style of painting, which he continues to use even now when he's living in the UK and has ample access to art supplies... Well, almost all. According to BBC World, he continues to use imported Burmese cotton cloth for his work.